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<Trade Secrets:
By Daniel Will-Harris

11-16-98 - Stop! What would you pay for the secret to formatting your documents in less than half the time it takes you now? And how much would you pay to make them better-looking and more consistent? But wait, there’s more! What we if also told you how you can change the entire look of your document in under a minute? And it gets even better—it’s easy. Now what would you pay?

No, this is no cheesy infomercial and there are no psychic friends here—because chances are you can do all this for free with the software you already own. What’s the secret?

Well, it isn’t a secret at all, it’s a feature called “styles,” which most people don’t use because they don’t understand how it works, and more importantly, how it can work for you.

If you haven’t used styles before you’ll find they work like magic—if you have, you’ll know they’re lifesavers.

Styles are perhaps most time saving, experimentation- encouraging, project- consistency- creating secret I can give you.

Do you use them? OK, I see a few hands, and I see some others of you pulling down menus thinking to yourself, “I’ve seen that word somewhere and I think I know what they do but I don’t really need them or have time to learn them,” but many if not most of you are saying, “I have style, I’m a designer!” or some such nonsense because you really don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about.

Well, styles are something you should know: actually, there are a lot of things you should know. Unfortunately, most of us are so busy just trying to get our work done that we don’t take or make the time to get the most out of our software—not to mention our time.

But lately I’ve been working with files from a lot of other people and I’ve realized that almost none of them use styles. And if you don’t use styles, you’re really missing the boat.

>The solution is “Styles”

Styles are formatting shortcuts used by many programs (Word, WordPerfect, Quark, PageMaker, Ventura, Publisher, NetObjects Fusion, and even some graphics applications like CorelDraw). Styles contain all the formatting parameters required for a single paragraph. Once you create a style, you can apply it over and over again—one keystroke can change fonts, leading, spacing, colors, ruling lines—everything required to format a paragraph.

Even better, if you reformat the contents of a style, all the text marked with that style also reformats—so you can consistently and accurately change dozens of headings in a second.

Styles are now also part of the web. “CSS” (Cascading Style Sheets) allow you to specify formatting not just on one page, but on your entire site. So you really should be learning what they are and how they work.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re creating a long report of 50 to 100 pages. If you don’t use styles, you must go through and manually swipe over each piece of text and set the font, leading, spacing, color, ruling line (and other attributes). You may have to do this 100 times (each time requiring at least 4 or 5 steps and countless keystrokes and mouse-clicks) for a single document. It’s very easy to make mistakes using this method.

If you use styles, you create a single style for each text element (such as heading, subheading, pull quote, captions). You apply each style with no more than two mouse clicks or keystrokes (you click in the paragraph you want to format, then click on the style name you want to apply), and the entire paragraph instantly appears formatted correctly. Everything looks professional and consistent throughout your document.

>Big changes in no time

But creating a document is just the tip of the iceberg. Every document goes through a lot of changes—often at the last minute. If you don’t use styles you could be stuck.

Let’s say you’re offering your service to two very different audiences; one is a Senior Center, the other is a Youth Center. Your text remains the same, but you want the look of the document to appeal to the different audiences.

Using styles you simply change the styles once and the entire document reformats—larger text in a more traditional typeface and layout with small cap headings for the Seniors, and small text in more MTV styles with wacky italic headings for the Youth Center. With styles this literally takes mere seconds. If you don’t use styles you’ll spend hours swiping over text, and probably make a lot of formatting mistakes (not to mention accidentally removing a word here or there).

Styles are also a boon for publications such as newsletters. Rather than having to recreate the design over and over from scratch, you simply apply the proper styles and your entire newsletter can be formatted in minutes.

To use styles between documents using a word processor you’ll want to save the file containing the styles as a template, then use that template when you create a new file. Page layout programs often allow you to save the “style sheet” separately.

>“What-if” design tool

Finally, styles are also a great “what if” design tool because they allow you to create a design, then change the styles to instantly see how the document would look with different typefaces, margins, columns, etc.

Styles work a little differently in every program but the end result is the same—you save time and your formatting is cleaner and more consistent.

If you haven’t used styles because you think you have to enter a bunch of codes into a dialog box, then think again. Creating styles could only be easier if you had someone else do it for you. You basically just “save” the formatting you’ve already applied, so you can re-use it, rather than having to recreate it.


Styles have huge advantages over “direct” formatting (meaning you swipe of text or select graphics and apply a bunch of different formatting to it by hand):

  • Styles save time: Once you create a style you can apply myriad formatting attributes with a single style. Global changes are made in seconds.
  • Styles add consistency: First, consistency is a good thing in design. (In case you’re confused, the quote is “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – not all consistency.) It makes projects look more polished and professional, and it also aids the reader who looks for consistent visual “signposts” or “cues.” If you don’t use styles, you have to set a large number of individual parameters for headings, subheads, pull quotes and other typographic elements. Using a style, you create the style once, then you simply apply it to other text—all of which instantly takes on all the formatting—simply and accurately.

    Styles even add consistency between documents: Most programs allow you to use an “external” style sheet. This means that every letter you create can have all the correspondence formatting you need, built-in, and all your correspondence has a consistent, professional look.
  • Styles let you make huge changes in seconds: When you format using styles, you can change the look of your entire document in seconds. Just change one style for subheads, and instantly, all your subheads change formatting. Easily. Consistently. Accurately. So you save even more time.
  • Styles avoid errors: Swiping over text and formatting is a slow and error prone process. You can forget to format a heading entirely, or accidentally set a subhead in the wrong font—then your publication looks sloppy.
  • Styles let you experiment with design: Because you can change one style and change the look of your entire document, you can use this feature to experiment with document design. In seconds you can see how your whole project looks in different typefaces, colors, etc. You can make your whole project longer or shorter or tighter or looser—accurately, consistently, professionally.
  • Styles translate from word processor to page layout program: Most page layout programs accept and understand the styles in Microsoft Word—so if you apply them as you write, your text can be pre-formatted in your page layout or web design program (NetObjects Fusion accepts their formatting but doesn’t translate them into its own styles).
  • Styles let you use the outlining feature in word processing programs: You’ve probably never used the outlining feature in your word processor, but this feature is a tremendous organizational tool. I’ll be writing about how to use it in coming weeks.

>Creating a style

Every program has slightly different steps for creating styles, but the basic principals are the same, and once you understand the concept you can take advantage of styles in every program that has them.

I’m going to walk you through creating styles in Microsoft Word, because you probably have Word. If you don’t, go into the program you do have and search on-line help for “Style” or “Styles” and read how to use them in your particular software.

Word has two kinds of styles—“paragraph” styles and “character” styles. They do what their names imply—paragraph styles apply to an entire paragraph while character styles can be applied to anything from a single character (or letter) to a word, to an entire document.

Word’s paragraph styles are accepted by other programs including Microsoft Publisher, PageMaker, and Xpress, and automatically converted into their own type of styles—one more reason to use styles. However, most page layout programs ignore Word’s character styles.

Paragraph styles are what you’ll want to use the most, and they’re very easy to create.

>To create a style in Word

  1. Format a paragraph (or heading) the way you want it. Here I’ve set the text to a larger size, set it in bold, and used Word’s Border and Shading feature to “reserve” it—make it white on a black background.
  2. Click in the Style box on the formatting toolbar. It probably says “normal.”
  3. Type a name for the style, such as "Headline" and press Enter.

Yes, that’s really all there is to creating a style.

>To apply a style in Word

  1. Place the cursor in the paragraph you want to format.
  2. Select the style you want from the drop-down style box in the toolbar.
  3. The paragraph reformats to reflect the contents of the style.

    Note: Word can be slow at displaying Styles in its drop down list, so to be really efficient you can attach a style to a keystroke such as Control-1 for heading one. To do this, go to Tools/Customize and click on the Keyboard button. Under “Categories” choose “Styles” and select the style you want in the box on the right. Click your cursor into the “press new shortcut key box” then press the shortcut key you want to use. If that key is already taken as a shortcut, it will show you what the key is currently assigned to. When you find the key you want, click on the “assign” button, then the “Close” button. This will be saved when you exit Word so it will work from then on.

>To modify an existing style in Word

  1. Apply the style you want to modify to a paragraph.
  2. Modify the particular attributes you want to change (font, spacing, etc.), and highlight a word (or the entire paragraph).
  3. Click in the Style Box on the formatting toolbar and press Enter. Word will ask if you want to “redefine the style using the selection as an example.” Choose OK. The style will be modified, and all text using this will reformat.

So next time you start to swipe over text to format it, take a few extra seconds to turn that formatting into a style—and you’ll save yourself hours of formatting time down the road.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved